Site logo

No Joking Matter: When A Subject Is Too Sensitive To Joke About

On Tuesday (June 6, 2023), lawyer-turned-comedian Jocelyn Chia uploaded a video to her now deleted Instagram account. This video showed a routine at the Comedy Cellar in New York where Chia (who was born in the US but grew up in Singapore) poked fun at Malaysia – comparing the country unfavourably to Singapore and calling it “a developing country”[1].

That was harmless enough. Until Chia stepped over the line.

She began making jokes about the tragic MH370 incident which happened in 2014, holding a mock conversation between the two countries.

Why haven’t you (Malaysia) paid me a visit in 40 years?

I tried but you know our airplanes can’t fly.” 

Chia then doubled down on her joke, saying: “Malaysian Airlines going missing is not funny? Some jokes don’t land. This joke kills in Singapore.

Chia’s insensitive joke drew Malaysian ire. Netizens were quick to make their displeasure with the comedian known[2].

She thinks she’s Uncle Roger, just wait until he roasts you back,” one user wrote.

Is this even a comedy? Or is it (a) personal attack?” asked another.

Local broadcaster Kudsia Kahar tweeted her thoughts about this controversy, noting that an excellent stand-up comedian would never joke about tragedies. She did, however, preface her tweet by saying that she’s a supporter of stand-up comedians and was fine with the comedian’s jokes against Malaysia. Many netizens agreed with the broadcaster’s sentiment and were also angered at how the comedian joke about a tragedy[3].

I draw the line at turning MH370 into a joke. Not acceptable. A good standup never turns tragedy and deaths into a joke. – Kudsia Kahar, Malaysian broadcaster[3]

Chia’s routine was also condemned by Communications and Digital Minister Fahmi Fadzil at a press conference at the World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) 2023 forum here in Malaysia[4].

That is not good material because we (Malaysians) are still sad over the tragedy and to make fun of it is in bad taste.

I, together with Foreign Minister (Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir), condemn the very insensitive act of the individual involved. – Fahmi Fadzil, Communications and Digital Minister[4]

Singaporeans were also angered over Chia’s joke, with some lodging police reports against the US-based comedian. Others have criticised her on social media, even complaining to the Comedy Cellar[5].

I’m a Singaporean and I have lodged a police report about this hate speech,” said one netizen on Chia’s Instagram before her account was disabled[5].

Singaporeans seriously don’t find this funny. I feel angry too. She should not joke about this kind of thing,” said a commenter on the Instagram account of Intan Maizura Othaman, the wife of MH370 crew member Mohd Hazrin Mohamed Hasnan[5].

Singapore High Commissioner to Malaysia Vanu Gopala Menon similarly condemned the comedian, describing her remarks as “gratuitously offensive comments”. He said his government did not condone words or actions that harm or hurt others[6].

Chia, who is no longer Singaporean, does not in any way reflect our views. I sincerely apologise to all Malaysians for her hurtful remarks. – Vanu Gopala Menon, Singapore High Commissioner to Malaysia[6]

Fellow stand-up comedian Kumar apologised to Malaysia in response to Chia’s insensitive jokes, posting a video on his social accounts that garnered over one million plays[7].

I would like to sincerely apologise on behalf of Jocelyn Chia’s stand-up comedy show. I really don’t think people should use stand-up comedy as a tool to vent out your anger and hatred. Please learn from this,” he said in the video[7].

Kumar further urged Chia to seek mental help in the video.

Comedian Kumar. Image via @kumar_comedy (Instagram)

Jocelyn Chia, if you’re watching this, I really think you [should] seek help because you really have some issues. Thank you.

Malaysia and Singapore are brothers and sisters, any animosity created is not good for us. – Kumar, stand-up comedian and TV host[7]

This controversy highlights a matter that tends to slip under the bus – whether it is okay to joke about sensitive subject matter. And when is it okay to joke about sensitive topics?

Ancient History Or Too Soon?

Although nine years have passed since MH370 disappeared, the tragedy still weighs heavily on Malaysians’ minds. And it is unlikely that the pain of such a thing will ever go away.

Comedian Jocelyn Chia. Source: The Star

Indeed, when Chia defended her joke by saying “It’s been long enough,” many felt her comment was insensitive. Some believed that if she had been a close relative of one of the victims, she wouldn’t have said that[3].

Certainly, most people would never think of joking about the Holocaust or 9/11, tragedies that are comparatively older than MH370 but are no less painful and horrific. Back in 2001, a mere few weeks after 9/11, US comedian Gilbert Gottfried made an ill-advised joke about planes “having to stop” at the Empire State Building. A man in his audience interrupted by saying that it was “too soon[8].

Timing Is Everything 

When it comes to tragic events or disasters, a team of psychologists led by University of Colorado Boulder professor Peter McGraw said in a paper that it takes roughly 36 days after a tragedy before jokes about it become funny[9].

Humorous responses to Sandy’s destruction rose, peaked, and eventually fell over the course of 100 days. We find that temporal distance creates a comedic sweet spot. A tragic event is difficult to joke about at first, but the passage of time initially increases humour as the event becomes less threatening. Eventually, however, distance decreases humour by making the event seem completely benign. – University of Colorado Boulder professor Peter McGraw[9]

The paper observes that prior to Hurricane Sandy when the threat was mainly hypothetical, people found jokes about it amusing. However, once the disaster actually occurred and individuals witnessed the devastating impact it had, such jokes were shelved as insensitive.

As time passed, however, it became more and more acceptable to “find humour in the tragedy,” with the paper noting its rankings peaked 36 days after Sandy made landfall[9].

That said, some subject matters take a much longer time to become acceptable to joke about, and the 36-day limit is not a concrete rule. 9/11, for example, still remains one of the most devastating tragedies in recent memory. But when satirical news site, The Onion, put out a “9/11 issue”, it became one of the site’s most celebrated editions.

People were incredibly grateful to The Onion. There was sort of this no-comedy zone that happened after 9/11 and it wasn’t clear when it would be okay to begin making jokes again. People didn’t say it was ‘too soon’ because it was so funny. – University of Colorado Boulder professor Peter McGraw[9]

If the Chia controversy proved something, it is that we truly don’t know when it becomes “ok” to joke about a tragedy. In fact, more than 36 days have passed since MH370’s disappearance.

People, especially those who’d lost loved ones on the doomed plane, are not willing to make light of it. Those like Intan Maizura Othaman, the wife of a flight attendant on MH370. She said her son Muhammad is still crying over the loss of his father. “…and here you are making fun of the tragedy.[6]

Do you know how many mothers are still crying over the tragedy until today?’” she said about Chia’s routine in a video posted on her TikTok page[6].

As McGraw explained, social media’s growing influence may have played a hand in this, imposing new limits on what comedians can get away with.

Comedy is a space that has its own set of rules. Then it gets posted on the Internet and broadcast to people sitting at their desks — people who weren’t intended to hear it and aren’t in the mindset to appreciate it. – University of Colorado Boulder professor Peter McGraw[9]

The Thin Line Between Humour And Harm 

Besides historic tragedies, there are plenty of other sensitive subjects that may land a comedian in hot water if they made jokes about them. In a society that’s becoming more open to issues such as sexual harassment and LGBT rights, jokes about these issues, no matter how light-hearted or non-malicious, are rarely taken in jest anymore.

The late Joan Rivers once commented on this:

I started thinking about jokes while I was walking uptown on 9/11. Is 9/11 too serious a topic for comedy? What about rape? Cancer? Hitler or the Holocaust? Why or why not?[10]

Unfortunately, jokes are subjective and there isn’t a clear line between what is okay and what is offensive.

Which leaves the question: how far is too far?

Perhaps the deciding factor in whether a joke crosses the line is intent. If a comedian is being malicious and displaying clear malice towards the victims of a tragedy or some other sensitive experience, they’ve overstepped the line[11].

And it only gets worse when the comedian defends themselves and their jokes using stock phrases like “It’s just a joke” or “It’s been long enough.” Perhaps that’s what people saw when Chia made fun of Malaysia’s lagging development compared to Singapore by poking fun at MH370’s disappearance.

On the other hand, many comedians cite joking about tragedy as a way to lessen the blow. That was the intention behind The Onion’s 9/11 issue; rather than mocking or disrespecting the victims of the tragedy, the jokes instead aim to make light of such a terrible incident as a means of catharsis, a way of releasing sadness about the event. In such a case, the comedian is not being malicious but simply trying to brighten up a bad situation better by making light of it[11].

At the end of the day, it was clear that Chia was not aiming to lessen MH370’s tragedy. There was no attempt to bring catharsis behind her mocking words. And while telling comedians that certain topics are totally off-limits is easier said than done, they should also remember to be cautious when making jokes about certain topics. Because no matter how soft they’re treading, comedians will inevitably offend someone.

As Malaysian comedian Harith Iskander said in response to Chia’s jokes:

Comedians, as artists, need to be aware of the potential impact our words can have.[6]

Explore our sources:

  1. H. Sukri. (2023). Jocelyn Chia backlash: Malaysian comedians weigh in on her MH370 joke. Channel News Asia Lifestyle. Link.
  2. A. Nur’aiman. (2023). “F–k You M’sia” — S’porean Standup Comedian Jocelyn Chia Makes Harsh Jokes About MH370. Says. Link.
  3. (Video) “Tragedies Are Not Jokes”: Malaysians Furious At SG Comedian’s MH370 Joke. Hype. Link.
  4. Bernama. (2023). Insensitive of Chia to joke about tragic incident, says Comms Minister. The Star. Link.
  5. Real S’poreans stand up in support of Malaysians. (2023). The Star. Link.
  6. H.J. Wen. (2023). Chia’s ‘joke’ no laughing matter. The Star. Link.
  7. T. Jayne. (2023). Stand-Up Comedian Kumar Responds To Jocelyn Chia’s Jokes & Asks Her To Seek Mental Help. Says. Link.
  8. L.J. Wen. (2023). Comedian draws flak for joke referencing lost MH370 plane. The Straits Times. Link.
  9. A. Robb. (2014). Social Psychologists: It Takes 36 Days After a Tragedy Before Jokes About It Become Funny. The New Republic. Link.
  10. K. Schulten. (2015). Are There Topics That Should Be Off Limits to Comedy? The New York Times. Link.
  11. G. Sylvester. (2015). What Are The Boundaries Of Comedy? Odyssey. Link.

Stories You May Also Like:

BURSA TOP 20: Who’s The most charitable?